Thunderbird Crash

Last September a Thunderbird F-16C crashed just after takeoff during an airshow performance in Idaho. The pilot managed to eject 0.8 seconds before impact and walked away with only minor injuries.

As one might expect at an airshow, there were many cameras trained on Thunderbird #6 when the accident occurred. Even so, this photo showing the $21 million jet just before impact is quite remarkable.

Even more remarkable is this video clip from an on-board camera showing the split-S maneuver and subsequent ejection from inside the cockpit. It’s a 4.1 megabyte mpeg, but if you can swing the bandwidth I highly recommend watching it.

As a side note, the accident investigation report was issued this week. It concluded that the accident was caused by pilot error. The pilot misinterpreted the altitude required to complete the “Split S” maneuver. He made his calculation based on an incorrect mean-sea-level (MSL) altitude of the airfield. The pilot incorrectly climbed to 1,670 feet above ground level (AGL) instead of 2,500 feet before initiating the pull down to the Split S maneuver.

It was a simple mistake. Unfortunately the stakes are very high when you’re performing low-level aerobatics.

Update – Feb 25, 2004: This entry has been receiving a lot of hits, so I thought I’d upload another video of the crash (1.3 meg, WMV format)–this time as seen from the ground. It’s every bit as dramatic as the cockpit video.

Update – Sept 21, 2004: If you liked this entry, there are a few more video clips you might be interested in.

  57 comments for “Thunderbird Crash

  1. "aunt" betty
    January 26, 2004 at 7:13 am

    i hope that you don’t articipate in any of these air shows. of course, i’m not sure which is more dangerous, flying or driving.
    “aunt” betty

  2. Jon
    January 26, 2004 at 9:24 am

    Interesting to see how calm the pilot seemed to be through the whole thing. Of course, there’s not a lot of room to move and we couldn’t see his face or hear his voice. I would love to be able to see that video and hear his voice. Was there a “Holy Crap! I’m gonna die!”? or anything fun like that?

  3. Bennie Davis
    January 28, 2004 at 9:50 pm

    I was the photgrapher on top of the control tower that took the picture you see above of the ejection. I was just wondering where did you get the image from? The image will soon be released through the Air Force, I see somehow it was leaked early.

    SSgt Bennie J. Davis III
    Still Photographer, USAF

  4. Ron
    January 29, 2004 at 12:33 am


    The photograph came from The photo can also be found in other places on the web, though surprisingly Google wasn’t much help in finding them. I do recall seeing a much higher resolution version on a web site, though.

    Congratulations on capturing a truly fantastic photograph.

  5. John Gull
    January 30, 2004 at 10:36 am

    To: SSgt Bennie J. Davis III

    The still image I’ve seen is a fake. There is a large area of parked cars clearly visible beyond the aircraft in the still image. There are no automobiles at all visible behind the aircraft in any frame of the in-cockpit video of the accident. Other than “I took it” please give me reason to believe that the still image is authentic (i.e. explain the cars and why a maneuver would be flown with energy directed downward toward them).

    The image in question is posted here:

    The video is available here:
    and directly, here:

    Thank you,

    John Gull
    iPilot, The Internet’s Aviation Resource

  6. Ron
    January 30, 2004 at 12:13 pm

    I can’t speak for SSgt Davis, but I’m not convinced that the photo is a fake. The aircraft’s energy was not directed toward the cars or the crowd, the telephoto lense and zoom level just makes it seem that way.

    If you look at an airport diagram for the Mountain Home AFB, you’ll notice that the tower is indeed located where he claims he took the photo from.

    Take a look at this image:

    Notice the runway orientation, the location of the tower, and the location of the photographer who took that picture. People were not located underneath the flight path, but off to the side of the runway. The cockpit video doesn’t show enough of the exterior to see what’s there, not to mention that it uses a very different kind of lense.

    I could be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. 🙂 But I feel that this image is authentic.

  7. John Gull
    January 30, 2004 at 2:40 pm

    You are correct, sir.
    The image is indeed authentic.

    My apologies to SSgt Davis and those readers I may have influenced.

    John Gull
    iPilot, The Internet’s Aviation Resource

  8. Zach
    January 31, 2004 at 11:21 pm

    Which would be none…

  9. Bennie Davis
    February 1, 2004 at 2:25 am

    Mr. Gull,
    You are not the first to dispute the photo; don’t feel bad. I have answered numerous e-mails on this matter. All your questions have seem to be answered. Using 300mm zoom you have the illusion of the background appearing closer in the image. The area behind the aircraft was the overflow civilian parking and the end of the active taxi way. If you look close at the vans below the aircraft, you can see the other Thunderbird members reacting to the ejection. I caught that single image before helping everyone else off the catwalk. I knew from looking at my LCD screen on the back of my D1x that it was a winner. You can check out a little more of my story here:

    Thanks for the appology, also the USAF has officailly released the photo at:

    SSgt Bennie J. Davis III
    Still Photographer, USAF

  10. Adam Carpenter
    February 4, 2004 at 10:02 am

    First let me say that I’m glad the pilot walked away from the crash. This accident should serve as a reminder to all of us that no matter what you do, be it for pleasure or employment….if there is a possibility of you being hurt or killed, BEWARE of that old saying “Familiarity breeds Complacency”, and usually its the details that creep up and surprise you.

  11. Dave
    February 5, 2004 at 11:43 am

    Re-proves the old aviator’s commandment:

    Thou shalt maintain thine airspeed,
    lest the ground should arise,
    and smite thee mightily…

  12. February 5, 2004 at 8:04 pm

    I linked to this, but the trackback apparently didn’t take:

    And, thanks for the video!

  13. J. Barry Herron
    February 7, 2004 at 10:09 am

    Regarding Thunderbird #6 ejection photo taken by SS Bennie. It goes without question that some people will doubt even what they see. I took the photo at first glance to be authentic. Years ago when I was in the Canadian Air Force (1950) I shot an air to air photo of a T-33 jet framed in the falls of Niagra. I was a PR photographer out of Trenton Ontario, Canada. We released it and got a lot of exposure from this photo. It was suggested by some that the photo was a fake. An aviation company tried to do a paste up on it but you could tell it was fake. As for my ahot you could see the heat exaust bluring the background coming from the jet. Then you could see the falls through the perspex of the cockpit as well. Mine was authentic as I beleive Bennie’s was. Terrific shot as was mine some forty years ago. J. Barry Herron, Photographer

  14. Bennie
    February 8, 2004 at 5:22 am

    Mr. Herron,
    Send me a copy of your photo, I’d love to see it.


  15. Rodney
    February 8, 2004 at 8:41 pm

    I know it is authentic, the parking lot confirms it. I was there and saw the parking lot by foot. it was as shown right down to every detail including the porta-potties. It was an awe-inspiring and terrifying sight. One of our party noticed the chute but for awhile we weren’t sure the pilot had escaped. The heat from the explosion could be felt even from across the tarmack. Thanks for your steadfastness in taking this picture, Bennie. I salute you.

  16. Ryonnaise
    February 8, 2004 at 8:50 pm

    The tourist guy pics are fake of course and they are humerous. This F-16 crash pic of course is the real deal! Who ever thinks it is fake probably believes in the famous fairy pic!(by they way… those are fake!)

  17. Anthony
    February 17, 2004 at 7:58 pm

    I’m only 17 and i dont know much about photo’s or takin them but if you stop and think about it.. compair both photo’s how can it be fake ?? i mean the only difference i saw was the fact that one photo has the area of cars CUT OFF.. it doesnt mean its a fake.. it just means it was either a bad picture taken or the pic that was taken was taken alittle ways away or something and it had the crowd cut off . i mean dont get mad or anything lol thats just how i see it. and thats my opinion

  18. Mike Hill
    February 20, 2004 at 9:39 am

    One of the most dramatic photos I’ve seen. I shoot a lot of airshows and know you have to be in the right place at the right time. Fantastic.
    As to coments about fake- Long range lenses do funny things. After looking at the photo I am in your corner.

  19. joe dupont
    February 22, 2004 at 8:32 am

    Despite what was said.. It seems very odd. the picture of the F-16 in level flight.

  20. Scott Preston
    February 22, 2004 at 7:41 pm

    SS Bennie: Fantastic shot – love it. I have seen it listed as a 300mm F/2.8, but the EXIF says it was F/4.0 @ 1/1000 and the max aperature on the lens was F/4.0 … The DOF also suggests it might have been more than 2.8…

    Either way, fantastic shot, thanks!

  21. Steve Harrison, MSgt, USAF (Ret.)
    February 24, 2004 at 11:38 am

    Excellent Airmanship in the end, fantastic photo op. Has anyone seen one of the pilot in the silk? I thought I saw one, but now I can’t find it.


  22. Jamie
    February 25, 2004 at 11:39 pm

    I was at the airshow at Mountain Home AFB when the Thunderbird jet crashed. I was directly across from it on the other side of the runway. When it came down, the pilot steered the aircraft away from the crowd and the runway and pointed it almost directly at the control tower. In fact, I thought for sure that he was going to hit the tower because he looked awfully close to it from where I was standing. The photo at the top, assuming that is the one being refered to, is not fake. The jet looks to be in pretty level flight but the pilot had the aircraft banked at a pretty drastic angle. He was trying as best he could to keep that aircraft from hitting the ground.

  23. Bennie Davis
    February 26, 2004 at 5:31 pm

    Your right, I was going off memory about the shooting data when I wrote a forum response at It had been a couple months since the photo was taken, I later checked the EXIF myself and noticed the appature setting. I never thought the story would spread as much as it did.
    TO ALL – Thanks for the kind words and e-mails!

    SSgt Bennie J. Davis III
    Still Photographer, USAF

  24. bob
    March 4, 2004 at 4:08 am

    I can go for a hot dog!!!!!!!

  25. March 5, 2004 at 9:08 pm

    SSgt. Davis and all,

    Must admit I’ve been jazzed to follow this thread, as I made an image sequence the crash (not the ejection) with a digi SLR. More importantly, though, a good friend photog a couple hundred yards *down-path* took a profile view – virtually ninety degrees to SSgt. Davis’ shot.
    The beauty, though, was in the timing between the respective photos! From what I’ve read at Kevin’s about the Aces II firing sequence, their camera shutters snapped within – literally – a split second.
    T#6 is reported to be 140 ft. agl at time of eject; given nominal 50 ft. plane length, my friend’s shot *shows the horizon*; aircraft at ~35 ft. agl; pilot is ~32 ft. above plane.

    Just an observation on serendipity – and how fast the craft was dropping…


    Marc Auth

  26. jim
    March 9, 2004 at 11:18 am

    I was apart of the demo team when this took place. The photo is real. The pilot hndled himself in a professional and perfect manner. The system worked perfectly and thank god there was noone injured. The feelings that the team went through that day is impossible to explain. The Thunderbirds are truely Ambassadors for the United States.

  27. Dave
    March 10, 2004 at 2:25 pm

    They definitely are ambassadors.

    Were you a pilot or a member of the ground team?

  28. Luke
    April 7, 2004 at 9:40 am

    Responding to the ’88 El Toro crash comment:

    I have the 1988 MCAS El Toro Airshow video, which shows live footage of the crash from several angles.. pretty amazing..

    Just to set the record straight tho.. the pilot did NOT walk away from that, matter of fact he was nearly killed by the impact and as a result was forced to retire from the Corps. (A segment on this accident was covered by “Impact: Stories of Survival” on cable).


  29. Alan Guy
    April 16, 2004 at 6:10 am

    Speaking as both a photojournalist and former pilot, I’d like to say this photo is not fake. First a 300mm lense compresses the image making things far in the background (cars) appear closer. Add that to the fact the pro digital cameras like the Nikon D1 magnify the lense by 1.4 times making it, in effect, 450mm. As for the plane in level flight. The pilot was trying to pull out of a dive and the plane was pancaking because it has stalled from the angle of attack. It appears to be level, but is actually sinking at a frighteningly rapid rate and probably couldn’t have been saved even if he managed to kick in full afterburner. Congrats on the photo. I’m sure it will be part of an impressive portfolio.


  30. AFROTC Cadet
    May 6, 2004 at 1:40 pm

    I’ve recently visited the Mountaain Home AFB and found out that this picture is NOT fake. The AF Thunderbirds have special shoots that open at the peak of ejection.

  31. May 17, 2004 at 5:57 pm

    hi-res pic of ejection…

  32. February 10, 2004 at 11:51 am

    At the 1988 MCAS El Toro Air Show a Colonel did the same thing in an F-18, except I don’t think he could use field elevation as an excuse since El Toro is at 383 feet. I know I’ve seen video of this but I can’t locate it online. He pancaked onto the runway and I understand he basically walked away; no big smoke/flame/explosion which once again demonstrates the inherant safety superiority of JP-5 over JP-4/Jet-A. There are some post-crash pictures of the plane at


    Ray Trygstad
    Aviation Safety Officer, USN (Now retired)
    Maintainer, Naval & Maritime Page of the World Wide Web Virtual Library

  33. tim
    February 14, 2004 at 7:46 am

    cockpit view: animated gif: ‘know when to say when’

    url of image

  34. mike
    July 22, 2004 at 4:54 pm

    Just a little info concerning the ejection photo and some of the past comments. Firstly to Mr. Trygstad the Pratt & Whitney engines in the Thunderbirds burn JP-8+100 fuel. Not JP-4. The USAF hasn’t used JP-4 in years. Secondly the “brain” of the ACES II ejection seat and also it’s installation in the aircraft allow the drogue chute to deploy almost instantly at that altitude. Props to the Thunderbird Egress shop. Thus proving that the picture is real. Plus I think it is well known that the jet was not in level flight by the video, but if you notice the leading edge flaps dropped severely, and the slight nose-up position of the horizontal stabs, the jet was trying to climb. In fact the flight control computer was still trying to correct the problem after ejection. Props to T-bird avionics. Finally it has been said that the crash was caused by pilot error due to an incorrectly set altimeter. The T-birds execute their maneuvers by a secondary clock mounted near the HUD that lets them know when to turn, flip, roll, etc. If the pilot followed this he would have rolled and started his dive like any other show with the altimeter not being too much of a factor. It has also been said that engine problems caused the crash. Which was most likely a compressor stall. This happens when the engine can’t control the air intake and basically chokes on air.

    USAF F-16 Crew Chief

  35. Aarron
    August 6, 2004 at 10:11 am

    So, did the pilot loose his flight status or is he still flying?

  36. Josh
    August 19, 2004 at 6:54 pm

    The photo is real. Some are doubting the validity because the jet looks like it is in level flight. Because of how the F-16 flies with its fly-by-wire system and other aerodynamic properties the jet flies at a certain Angle of Attack and the more the pilot pulls back on the stick or “G’s” up the jet the more angle of attack is induced. Angle of Attack is the difference between where the nose of the jet is pointed versus where the jet is actually going. So, the jet looks level but its actual flight path is still pointed at the ground. It would have appeared to someone at the show as if the pilot pulled the nose up to level flight but the jet was still sinking towards the ground. Another good point out by one of the above articles is the leading edge flaps are fully deflected. Also you can see the boundary layer separation indicated by the smoky looking air on the top half of the wings where the wings join the body of the jet. Both of these are indicative of an F-16 flying at a high ANGLE OF ATTACK.

  37. Dick Mays
    September 13, 2004 at 7:21 am

    I was very impressed with the power of the ejection seat, and the ability of the pilot to eject just before impact. I wish the Thunderbirds had been flying F16s in 1982, when I lost my brother in the tragic dimon formation accident.

  38. Ken Martin
    September 21, 2004 at 8:17 pm

    Not enough credit has been given to the ACES II ejection seat which performed as designed, like a champ and has been responsible for saving many more lives, especially in low altitude ejections, and without the problems of back injuries of previous ejection seats. Kudos to the development, into production, by the Life Support System Program Office located, at that time, at the Aeronautical Systems Division, Wright Patterson AFB.

  39. David Skinner
    September 22, 2004 at 7:36 pm

    I would like to mention that all ACES II ejection seats are manufactured by Goodrich Aerospace, and several improvements have been implemented since they took ownership several years ago. This would include high speed ejections. This is not to take away from the efforts of the men and women of the USAF, but would like to see a little recognition for those who manufacture not only the seat bucket, but the rocket motor, propellant, etc.

  40. Paul Murphy
    September 25, 2004 at 6:05 am

    Ive heard somewhere that pilots are limited to a certain number of ejections before being grounded, due to the forces exerted on the human body, neck and backbone i imagine. Can anybody here give more info on this?

  41. Ken Stenstrom
    November 4, 2004 at 8:14 pm

    Does anyone know a website that has a photograph of the Thunderbirds 1982 ‘Diamond Crash’ ?

  42. November 20, 2004 at 2:33 am


    I haven’t seen a website that has a photograph of the 1982 “Diamond Crash’ however the book One Desert Jet Turner available at includes a detailed analysis of this mishap as well as an extensive bibliography of references that may be of value in your search.

  43. Steven Crawford A1C US Air Force MHAFB, ID
    January 27, 2005 at 6:03 pm

    The picture is real. I was their. I’m an F-16 Crew Chief. I work in the phase hanger and know exactly where the parking lot is. Oh and Paul. It is true there is a limit to how many Ejections a Pilot can have before they have to retire as a pilot. And it is only twice. Each time the Pilot Ejects that pilot will lose about a half an inch to their height. So The US Air Force only allows two ejections per lifetime.

  44. Dave
    March 22, 2005 at 9:45 am

    Cracking Photograph! Well done.

  45. Barrie MacLeod
    March 31, 2005 at 7:09 pm

    I was glad to see Barry Herron’s name in the comments. A few of us were recently leafing through some of the Canadian Sabre (F-86) books by Chick Childerhose & Larry Milberry. Barry did great Sabre photos!

  46. Jay Mac
    April 12, 2005 at 7:00 am

    you’re right Jon about how calm the pilot was. generally in this scenario the only thing on the pilots mind is getting the plane back under control, or getting the hell out of it. there is no effort put into swearing or yelling. especially as he’s a military pilot it would have been a trianed response, he concentrated everything on his actions only. these responses are drilled into you, when the time comes you perform without thinking.

  47. DaveA
    May 17, 2005 at 10:36 am

    If you watch the video, you can see his left hand go to the ejection handle three times before he punches out….he knew it was coming, but tried to save it until the last second.

  48. Kevin Merry
    June 9, 2005 at 8:11 pm

    Several answers to John Gull’s claim of the picture being a fake. Number one, the cockpit camera was angled up so you are not going to see the cars. It is called “Perspective”.

    Number two, the pilot turned the jet away from the crowd, which positions the exhaust nozzel towards the cars which makes it appears it came from that direction.

    Number three, about the energy. The jet is at a slight noise up Angle of Attack, BUT, it is still sinking. The pilot angles the jet away from the crowd but most of the energy still carries the jet down the runway and was never directed at the crowd at any time.

    Number four, FAA regulation restrict overflying of spectators or any flight manuvers the place the spectators in danger. This is a result of the tragic accident in Germany which many spectators were killed as a result of a midair collision in which the energy was directed towards the crowd.

    Number five, quit hating and chillout. Enjoy the photo for what it is.

  49. Tom Wharton
    July 12, 2005 at 12:02 pm

    The photo is real and the cockpit video is real…trust me.

    Terrible shame, pilot error caused this but it goes to show even the best can have a bad day if not careful….thank god he walked away.

    Tom Wharton (SMSgt Retired)
    Thunderbird Production Superintendent 1988 to 1991

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